Looking to recover from their big draft day disappointment of a year ago - when they drafted a Puerto Rican named Jose Ortiz who is still yet to set his power forward feet in the Beehive State - the Jazz went with a much surer thing Tuesday in the NBA's 1988 college draft. They took one Eric Leckner of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the University of Wyoming.
The 6-foot-11 Leckner is not likely to defect - as Ortiz did by playing in Spain. He knows the way to Salt Lake City - turn west going out of Laramie and don't stop until you've passed Evanston. And he knows that there are those Wyoming-ites who have escaped across the border and can be counted on to help with his welcome. "It will be good to play where I'll have a little bit of fan support from my college days," he said Tuesday in his telephone acceptance speech."I've played in snow," he added later, "I know where I'm going."
From draft headquarters in the Salt Palace Hot Rod Hundley had asked Leckner just seconds after the draft announcement if he'd ever played in Utah before. Leckner sort of hemmed and hawed. Didn't the voice of the Jazz know of his extensive Western Athletic Conference past?
Hot Rod's comment was along the same line as three years ago, when Karl Malone was drafted and said live from Louisiana, "I'm looking forward to playing in the city of Utah."
But, then, Ortiz didn't even say that.
The Jazz made sure that Leckner came to Salt Lake for his pre-draft physical, and that he met the members of the coaching staff. And that he wasn't thinking of joining the Peace Corps or going to law school.
With Leckner the Jazz were, as coach Frank Layden said, "right on the money. We thought he'd still be there at 17, and we wanted him.
"He's got a ways to go. All big guys do," said Layden. "But at this stage he's 1,000 times better than Mark Eaton was. Eaton couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time when he came here. This is a guy who's been on a team that's been successful, and he was a big part of it."
Leckner's selection was not greeted with great rounds of applause and loud cheers from those several hundred fans watching the draft in the Salt Palace. Hisses and boos were in the majority. Leckner's visits to the University of Utah and BYU the past four years apparently either produced bad feelings or left people unimpressed.
Layden was unfazed.
"Those are the same fans that booed me," he said, "those are the same fans that booed Stockton when we picked him, and Thurl Bailey. Their opinion doesn't mean . . . "
The coach added that Leckner will have a spot in the lineup vacated by Mel Turpin, last year's backup center and not one of Layden's favorite players.
"Turpin is history," he said. "I don't think he'll be back . . . I don't want him back."
And Turpin's opinion doesn't mean . . .
As for Leckner, he didn't appear to be a malcontent, or otherwise likely to give coach Layden any cause for grief.
"I'm going back to Wyoming," he said live from Manhattan Beach, "and I'm going to get ready. I'll work on my strength and get prepared to do well in camp - and then leave it up to the Jazz what they want to do with me."
Of Eaton he said, "He's a player who made himself a player. It didn't just happen. Hopefully he can help me with the work ethic."
So it's all about as friendly and amiable as a working arrangement can start out. Even Leckner's agent, Bob Woolf, is looked on with a measure of respect, or at least tolerance, by the Jazz management. "Woolf we can usually deal with," said franchise president Dave Checketts, "that figured into our thinking."
Leckner is from the West. He has an agent who understands the NBA. He speaks English. And he played his college ball in Laramie, which is higher, colder, windier and more remote than any basketball-playing place he'll ever again encounter.
"Salt Lake's a great city," he said yesterday. "I'll be very happy to play there. As a matter of fact, I'm ecstatic about it."
Jose Ortiz never said that. Not even in Spanish.